Nat Geo Travels: Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

We asked a National Geographic staff member about his recent travels to the Galápagos Islands and Ecuador's cloud forests. Here’s his advice on getting the most out of a trip to this wildlife oasis.

National Geographic staff member Andrew Coleman recently traveled to Ecuador, stayed in the Mashpi Lodge, and visited the Galápagos Islands aboard the National Geographic Endeavour. He hiked through the lush Andean cloud forest, sailed over the pristine waters of the Pacific, and chowed down on classic Ecuadorian cuisine.

We talked to Andrew about his favorite hike, most memorable wildlife encounter, and the local dish he liked best.

What attracted you to the Galápagos Islands and the Ecuadorian cloud forests?

If visiting the place that inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is not enough, being able to access sites so well preserved that they are almost like they were when the H.M.S. Beagle sailed through these waters makes this an amazing destination. Following that up with a trip to the protected cloud forests of Ecuadorian Chocó, home to many of its own endemic species, gives a great overview of the diversity of species in the area and the importance of conservation.

Speaking of biodiversity, did you have any close encounters with the animals living on the islands?

The waters in the Galápagos were teeming with wildlife. I’ve seen sea lions lying in the sand and on the rocks, but there is nothing more exhilarating than having them splash around with you while you are snorkeling. We sat for almost 10 minutes as one playful juvenile did somersaults in the water around us, playfully darting through the waters with grace and speed and an apparent zest for life.

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A member of one of the 22 hummingbird species found near Mashpi Lodge perches on a branch in the cloud forests of Ecuadorian Chocó.

Wow, that’s close. Did the animals seem frightened of the travelers?

The wildlife in the Galápagos has no natural fear of humans, giving you intimate interactions in this pristine wilderness. Also, despite the fact that there are dozens of ships in the Galápagos at any given time, the routing and itineraries are controlled by the Galápagos National Park Service, and they go to great effort to make sure that there is never crowding in one area, making us feel like the National Geographic Endeavour was the only ship in the islands for much of our trip.

You also spent some time in the cloud forests. What was your favorite outdoor activity there?

There are several great hikes that take you deep into the cloud forests, most of which take you by some spectacular waterfalls. Mashpi Lodge also has a sky bike that runs along a cable high in the canopy. This is a thrilling way to see what life is like high in the trees.

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Hikers pause to admire a cascading waterfall in the cloud forest surrounding Mashpi Lodge.

What was your most memorable hike?

A night hike in the cloud forest at Mashpi looking for wildlife was exhilarating and rewarding. At one point, we turned off the flashlights and stood in complete darkness listening to the sounds of the forest. The highlight of the night, though, was finding the Mashpi frog, a new species discovered on the property just a few months before I’d arrived.

You must’ve needed a lot of energy for all that hiking. What was the best dish you had on the trip?

The locro de papa, a classic Ecuadorian potato-and-cheese soup with avocado, at the restaurant at the Mashpi Lodge, one of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World, was so good I asked for a second bowl before getting my entrée.

That sounds delicious. Mashpi is only a few hours outside the capital city of Quito. Is it worth a stop?

Definitely. Before heading to the cloud forest, spend a day in Old Town Quito. This historic center, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is packed with restored churches, mansions, and museums.

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Mashpi Lodge visitors look out at the verdant landscape of Ecuadorian Chocó.

Do you have any packing pointers for travelers venturing to Ecuador?

No matter the weather, sunny or cloudy, use plenty of sunscreen. You are at the Equator and outdoors most of the time, so it is good to apply lotion early and often.

Is there anything you wish you’d left at home?

Cotton shirts. Lightweight, breathable fabric is much more suitable for Ecuador. I actually wore long-sleeved safari shirts most days, despite the temperatures, to protect from the sun.

Follow Andrew on Instagram @andywcoleman.